Adam Schiff, Steve Garvey advance out of California’s U.S. Senate primary

Steve Garvey speaks with reporters in Sacramento on Jan. 17, 2024. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters
Steve Garvey speaks with reporters in Sacramento on Jan. 17, 2024. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters

By Yue Stella Yu 
CalMatters Writer 

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff and Republican former baseball star Steve Garvey will face off in November for California’s highly coveted U.S. Senate seat.   

The race is a once-in-decades opportunity to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein (and succeed caretaker Sen. Laphonza Butler). The winner in November — and Schiff starts with a big edge — could hold onto the seat for decades to come.  

As of the latest vote counts on Wednesday, Schiff led with 32.0% to Garvey’s 31.9%, while Democratic Rep. Katie Porter trailed with 15.2% and Rep. Barbara Lee had 9.2%. On primary night March 5, the Associated Press declared Schiff the winner of one ticket out of the primary, and then Garvey for the second. 

In the separate primary to serve out the final few weeks of Feinstein’s term, Garvey is narrowly leading Schiff by a few percentage points. This race will be decided in November as well. 

The result largely came down to the impact of former President Donald Trump, voter turnout and campaign cash. 

The race is already the most expensive U.S. Senate contest in state history. Schiff, a Burbank U.S. representative who has consistently led in polling, has spent a whopping $38 million ahead of the primary, outspending all his opponents combined and ranking second among all Senate candidates nationwide.  

Schiff’s tremendous fundraising edge made the race essentially a competition for second place for other candidates. 

In recent months, that has been a fight between progressive Democratic firebrand Porter and Garvey, a former L.A. Dodgers star who jumped into the race in October and appears to be consolidating Republican voters. Lee, an Oakland Democrat known for her lone vote against the Afghanistan War in Congress and for her call for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, has lagged in fundraising and polling.  

But a projected “historically low” turnout, especially among young voters, boosted Garvey’s chances and hurt Porter’s odds, according to a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll released last week. A third of likely voters in the primary are Republican, the poll said.  

A tale of two races 

No Republican has won a statewide race since 2006. And for months, the Senate race was almost strictly a Democratic affair. Schiff, Porter and Lee — in that order — dominated the polls early on, as experts predicted a Democrat-on-Democrat faceoff in November. 

Then entered Garvey. 

He surged in polls in recent months, running almost entirely on name recognition. That was enough to get him on the stage with the three Democrats for three statewide televised debates. 

The campaign has touted Garvey’s homelessness tours in several big cities, as well as his trips to the southern border and the Salton Sea, but he has proposed few specific policies. Garvey, who has voted for Trump twice, has also declined to say how he will vote in this presidential election. 

But he did not need to do that to advance to the general election, some political strategists say. 

“It’s almost like he’s in a completely different sport,” Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data. “All he has to do is continue to be the Republican that gets talked about in the race.” 

The Democrats, however, needed to stand out. Lee, Porter and Schiff — having largely identical voting records — all fought to distinguish themselves from one another and to reach different groups of voters. They touted different policy positions and released detailed plans ahead of the primary.  

“The contest for the Democrats is to appeal to as many voters as possible,” Mitchell said.  

Lee has touted her progressive record and often diverged from Schiff and Porter in foreign policies. She has consistently advocated for a cut to the defense budget and led on issues such as decriminalizing marijuana, impeaching Trump and repealing the post-Sept. 11 terrorist attack war authorization. 

Porter, who is well-known for her use of whiteboards in congressional hearings to grill witnesses, portrayed herself as a crusader against corporate interests, rejecting corporate political action committee contributions for years. She vowed to “shake up the Senate” and has declined to request earmark funding — a process through which members of Congress request for federal dollars for their own districts.  

And Schiff, who used to be a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, has rebranded himself as a progressive and shifted his stances on many crime policies. Unlike Porter and Lee, he refuses to call for a ceasefire in Gaza. He was also the only one to support raising the debt ceiling last year to avoid a default. 

The Trump factor 

Another reason Garvey hasn’t had to do much campaigning: Schiff did it for him. 

Schiff’s campaign shelled out tens of millions of dollars on TV ads that portrayed the race as a showdown between him and Garvey, boosting the Republican’s profile along the way. Schiff aired ads on Fox News and sent out mailers to Republican voters, deeming Garvey “too conservative for California.”  

While Trump has not weighed in on the race, his name is frequently invoked in Schiff’s ads as Schiff tries to tie Garvey to the former president and the Make America Great Again movement. At a San Diego event, Schiff said Garvey is “in far, far, far right field.”  

Schiff has fundraised off Trump’s post on the former president’s social media platform Truth Social calling him “Slimeball Adam ‘Shifty’ Schiff,” touting his role leading the first impeachment trial against Trump in 2020.  

“He has really, really capitalized on being the most anti-Trump guy in the race,” said Jon Fleischman, longtime Republican strategist and former executive director of the California Republican Party. “If you ask anybody: ‘What’s the No. 1 thing you know about Adam Schiff?’ He took on Donald Trump.” 

Schiff’s cash advantage 

Schiff, who entered the new year with $35 million on hand, was able to spend freely on Garvey’s behalf. 

“Katie Porter was essentially almost running for the second spot on the ballot from the beginning, and that’s always a mistake,” Mitchell said.  

Porter said young people are “discouraged” and are turned off by the “big money” in the Senate race. She has blamed the lower turnout among Democrats and high turnout among Republicans on Schiff’s ad blitz elevating Garvey.  

“This is the Schiff gift to the Republican Party in California and is a big problem for us in this election, but also down ballot into November,” Porter told reporters after she cast her ballot. 

Fleischman agreed. While Schiff’s boost for Garvey may have elevated his own chance to win in November, it may come at a cost to Democrats as more Republicans will be incentivized to vote in a Schiff-Garvey faceoff, he said.  

“Garvey’s presence on the ticket will be very, very helpful (to Republicans) in all of these very competitive congressional races in California that are going to help choose who controls Congress,” he said. “With nothing competitive statewide, you could see an enthusiasm gap for Democrats.” 

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